Marvin Gaye Park in NE has neighbors reclaiming their sense of community

A playground built one year ago in Marvin Gaye Park is a symbol of progress in an area plagued for years by crime and drugs.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 4, 2010

A young girl glides back and forth on a swing, her legs dangling in the warm breeze. Two boys chase each other while another scurries up a domed metal climber.

Jonnesha Thompson, 21, stands close by, tracking her children's every move.

This spot was once nicknamed "Needle Park," because intravenous drug users tossed their empties here. A year ago, yellow, purple and green swings and jungle gyms were installed here atop a brown rubber ground cover.

Now the playground, in Marvin Gaye Park in Northeast Washington, attracts a steady stream of children. Nearby crime has dropped. Next door, H.D. Woodson Senior High School is undergoing a total makeover and new townhouses are under construction.

Mothers like Thompson are feeling safe enough to bring their children there to play. But when one of her sons wandered beyond the gated circle, she quickly scooped him up.

Things are changing, but Thompson remains wary.

"I don't go over there at all," she said, looking beyond the playground.

* * *

It was called Needle Park for a reason.

When the 1.6-mile-long stretch of grass and woods -- formerly called Watts Branch Park, for the stream running through it -- was turned over to the District in the 1970s, it quickly became an open-air heroin market.

Wendy Thornton, 52, was a regular visitor when she moved to the neighborhood 15 years ago. "I took my kids to school, I would get drugs," she said. "If I didn't have money to get drugs, then I would get alcohol."

Thornton cleaned up five years ago, and so have parts of the park.

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